" is widely thought to have been the first modern slasher film, 1974's lesser-known cult classic "Black Christmas" came four years earlier, jump-starting many of the genre conventions (i.e. the use of the killer's POV; the "final girl" heroine; setting the story during a holiday; the discovery that the calls are coming from inside the house). Thirty-two years later, the film still holds up extraordinarily well and remains one of the creepiest, most atmospheric horror movies of all time. Directed by Bob Clark, who would go on to make a very different Christmas picture, 1983's iconic "A Christmas Story," the key to the film's goosebump-inducing allure can be boiled down to three factors: the profane, truly unsettling phone calls that the psychopath makes to his future victims; the unforgettable repeated image of a dead young woman sitting in a rocking chair at the attic window, her head covered in a clear plastic bag; and the masterfully disturbing decision to never reveal the killer's identity or have him defeated. At the end of the 1974 film, he remained in his attic lair, still free to commit whatever atrocities he wanted.
Remakes are rarely a good idea, especially when their precursor leaves so little room for possible improvement, but there is a way to respectfully update them for a new generation. 2006's "Black Christmas" does not do this; in fact, the finished product craps upon all that was so brilliantly conceived in the original, aspiring instead to be a generic, run-of-the-mill body-count flick with an ensemble of forgettable pretty faces ready for the chopping block. Although credited as the writer and director, there probably shouldn't be too much blame placed on the shoulders of Glen Morgan (2003's "Willard
"). Allegedly, joint distributors MGM and Dimension Films threw away the filmmaker's auspicious intended vision, demanding reshoots and reediting so that the final released cut would be free of nuance and suspense in favor of throwaway one-liners, nonexistent character development and undistinguished splatter effects.
Believing that today's audiences wouldn't accept a killer cloaked in shadows and whose past is only provocatively suggested, "Black Christmas" presents a painstaking backstory for the murderous Billy (Robert Mann) and his inbred sister/daughter Agnes (Dean Friss). On Christmas Eve, Billy escapes from the insane asylum and returns to his childhood home where he savagely slaughtered his abusive mother and stepfather fifteen years prior. Now being used as a sorority house, a group of bitchy college galsKelli (Katie Cassidy), Melissa (Michelle Trachtenberg), Heather (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Dana (Lacey Chabert), among themand housemother Ms. Mac (Andrea Martin) have the misfortune of being snowed in for the night while Billy and Agnes prepare a decidedly unfestive reign of terror from up in the attic.
"Black Christmas" is successful at one thing, if nothing else: repeating yet botching many of the best moments from the 1974 movie. In place of the eerie clear plastic bag used to suffocate sorority sister Clair, gray-silver bags are used only to disable the girls before their eyeballs are pulled/stabbed/gouged out. The phantom phone calls, with the admittedly clever new conceit of each one coming from the past victim's cell, are so bland and uninspired that they are barely even afterthoughts. Gone, too, is the perpetrator's chilling oral mimicry of men, women and children that suggested a schizophrenic or multiple personality; here he is just a standard-issue nutjob. And, to top it all off, the elegant open-ended climax of the original is replaced with an overextended hospital-set denouement that stinks of a last-minute reshoot.
In comparison to the earlier "Black Christmas," this threadbare redux is an abomination that should never have been made. Taken on its own individual terms, however, it is a notch above terrible. The editing is a messflashbacks to Billy's past permeate the first half, inserted at random and breaking up the present-day story's flowbut the pacing is quick enough that it dodges becoming boring. The injection of well-known Christmas musici.e. "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy," "Carol of the Bells"into sequences of violence and murder make for a wickedly dark counterpoint. There are also a few imaginative visuals, as when the windshield Ms. Mac is scraping is doused with blood from the inside, and a Christmas tree topped with a decapitated head.
Otherwise, the film is a missed opportunity, at times so mismanaged that it is as if the makers were striving for mediocrity. The exterior property of the sorority house is poorly implemented into the action, and a scene in which another house is established on the street is promptly forgotten about. The sorority girls are written as spoiled, meanspirited ice queens, few of them likable or developed enough for the viewer to care about their fates. As protagonist Kelli, Katie Cassidy (2006's "When a Stranger Calls
") is the exception. Like the others, Kelli has few personal character traits, but Cassidy shows a promising spark.
Most of the supporting cast is built out of well-known rising young actresses, and it is hard to believe any of them signed on with the minimal amount of material they are given. Michelle Trachtenberg (2005's "Mysterious Skin
") is charismatic as always, but her Melissa is so one-note that it's impossible to describe the character beyond her name. Lacey Chabert (2004's "Mean Girls
") is wasted as Dana, onscreen long enough to spout off some nasty sarcastic comments and die. As the religious, sheltered Heather, Mary Elizabeth Winstead (2006's "Final Destination 3
") is too good for the part she has to play, struggling to breathe life into a half-written stick figure. And Crystal Lowe's (2006's "Snakes on a Plane
") drunken Lauren is no match for the original's sharp-tongued Barb, played by a pre-"Superman" Margot Kidder. Filling out the rest of the ensemble are Andrea Martin (2006's "How to Eat Fried Worms
"), the sole returning actor from the first "Black Christmas," as housemother Ms. Mac; Kristen Cloke (2000's "Final Destination
"), as Leigh, the concerned older sister of the ill-fated Clair (Leela Savasta); and the hunky Oliver Hudson (1999's "The Out-of-Towners
") as Kelli's boyfriend Kyle.
For horror buffs who only care about blood, guts and a high victim count over the holiday season, "Black Christmas" will whet their appetite but not satiate it. Some of the killings are appropriately winter-themeddeath by icicle, ice skate, candy cane, etc.but too frantically edited to serve as satisfying payoffs. The worst thing about the film is how routine it is, going through the paint-by-number motions of a listless '80s-style slasher script without caring to carve out an identity of its own. 1974's "Black Christmas" left the viewer physically shaken and emotionally rattled. 2006's "Black Christmas" is dumbed-down, unscary hokum without a clue how to ratchet up a person's heartbeat.